As part of a recent resolution to try to catch up with some popular modern fantasy novels, I’ve just read Rachel Aaron’s 2010 novel, The Spirit Thief. How has the genre changed, I wondered, since the 1990s? Since, if we’re honest, the 1980s? (I wasn’t reading fantasy in the eighties, but many of the books I read in the 90s and early 00s were written in the late eighties or early nineties).
If this is representative, the answer is: surprisingly little.
The Spirit Thief is a light-hearted, fast-paced fantasy adventure that reminded me a lot of the D&D novels I read as a child, and even more of David Eddings.
The biggest change seems to be that Aaron’s effort recognises that writers like Eddings were not great writers of character, setting or plot, and responds by doing away with these elements altogether. The central characters are hooks to hang second-hand snatches of dialogue onto, the background characters are less intelligent than dirt, the ‘setting’, such as it is, exists only to let the characters have somewhere to stand, and the plot is just the shape formed by stringing together a series of Kickass Moments.
The debt to earlier fantasy is… well, to say there’s a ‘debt’ to earlier fantasy is understating it. Essentially, this book bears the same relation to the genre, and to pop culture, that a cheap frozen sausage bears to a herd of pigs – with the genuine pig-meat being the regurgitated blobs of fantasy, and the 60% ‘herbs’, ‘flavourings’, water and potato starch being TV and Hollywood. At times it felt like it had been written by a random phrase generator that had been fed with a magazine of clichés – this from here, that from there, without much consideration for how they fit together. Similarly, there is not even a passing concern for the realities of conversation, of environment (it’s hard to have a flowing, full-volume, secret conversation while both people are physically pushing through a crowded room!), of basic anatomy, of physics, or geography, or swordsmanship, or even really of common-sense applications of vocabulary. A swordsman, for instance, at one point ‘parries’ a large leaping predator (and moreover a predator leaping at someone else) with their sword. Is it that the author has no idea how physics works, or just that she doesn’t really know what ‘parry’ means but just that it’s something swordfighters apparently do? Quite possibly both.
The result reads like a children’s-cartoon version of fantasy. That’s not just because it’s derivative, shallow, and not always fully coherent. It’s also because that’s how it’s structured – fight scenes in particular, and above all the immense, one-special-move-after-another final fight scene, read like parodies of the worst excesses of anime. But more generally, like a cartoon, it seems to rely on the reader imagining the depth. Kids are easy to convince: tell a kid that something is epic and important, and they believe it, so cartoons only have to show big, flashy, symbolic moments, and the kid will sort of interpolate the meaning and the character depth and the setting and so forth. The problem is… I’m not a kid.
The other analogy I’ve been considering is hardcore porn, which, after all, is (so I hear, obviously, second-hand, from a friend, it should be made clear…) in many ways quite similar to children’s cartoons.
I don’t mean the somewhat clumsy, somewhat kinky, badly-filmed semi-amateur pornography. That would be eighties neopulp fantasy, like the Spelljammer novel I just reviewed, Beyond the Moons. It may not be very good, but you have to give credit for passion and some sense of authenticity, even if it’s authenticity buried beneath a layer of stilted cliché and unconvincing dialogue. No, I mean that sort of mass-manufactured Hollywood porn, where, as in The Spirit Thief, a small cast of people who would probably look more lifelike and human if they were replaced by inflatable dolls make noises that nobody would really make and perform what are essentially timeless and familiar manoeuvres in an implausibly athletic, yet disappointing unimpassioned, impersonal and half-hearted, way.
And yet, of course, porn sells. It gets, as it were, right to the heart of the matter and gives viewers what they want with none of that boring foreplay stuff like ‘personalities’, ‘motivation’, ‘context’ or ‘significance’. And The Spirit Thief is fantasy-porn, giving people the same old comfortable kickass moments of magical-and-martial yeehaw, without wasting your time with any of that other business. In that respect, it also feels rather like bad fan-fiction, the sort where fan-favourite characters take turns being ‘badass’ with their limitless super-powers, while making ‘witty quips’ that the writer once overheard and heard that they were funny even though he’s not sure why but he sticks them in anyway.
Actually, what it reminded me of most of all was an old webcomic called 8-Bit Theatre, which is a sprite-based parody of the early Final Fantasy games, and of fantasy roleplaying in general. Quite a few scenes from the book could easily have fitted into 8-Bit. The problem is, 8-Bit was an overt parody; and The Spirit Thief isn’t. Oh, it’s not po-faced, I’ll give it that – it’s light-hearted and not above the odd ironic comment. But it isn’t the outright mockery (albeit loving mockery) that 8-Bit was. Reading like a parody when you’re not a parody is not a good sign… particularly since 8-Bit also had a far more psychologically interesting cast of characters, a more imaginative setting and a more complicated plot. ‘Shallower than the parody version’ isn’t a fantastic selling point.
…and yet. And yet… there’s a reason why porn sells. There’s a reason why people read and write bad Mary-Sue fanfics, there’s a reason why kids – and adults who can quiet their inner cynic – can enjoy cartoons.
This is, in a way, quite well-written. It mostly read easily, and it mostly felt like there were stakes (even if they were artificial stakes), so I read through it quickly. I may have started out sighing, thinking what a waste it was to have bought the omnibus addition of the first three books, but by the end I was thinking I’d probably read at least one of the sequels. Comparing this, for instance, to Beyond the Moons, it’s clear that this is – while rather less interesting conceptually – a more appealing book. The characters don’t have much to them, but they are written appealingly; likewise, the story is stupid, but it feeds the primal urges of fantasy fan. In other words, this is pure pulp.
This does read like fanfic, but I’m left kind of wishing I could read the real novel this fanfic is based on…
Oh, and did I say ‘pulp’? For context, the first three Monpress novels were published in 2010, followed by two more in 2012, plus… a book teaching people how with One Weird Trick the author was able to go from writing 2000 words a day to writing 10,000 words a day. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure – just look how quickly Terry Pratchett once wrote. The difference is, this reads like a book that was written in a fortnight, and like a book by someone who would try to sell you her amazing method to let you too write entire novels in a fortnight…
But going back to the original question… so what has changed?
Well, the most obvious difference is the language. The rather rigid, archaic idiom common in older fantasy has been half-dissolved in a sea of pseudo-witty contemporary TV-speak. People are ‘jerks’ and they quote twelve-steps programmes and greeting card wisdom. The effect is anachronistic in the extreme – though perhaps less so than the worst excesses of the 1980s, in which bad authors would occasionally slip into realistic modern language in a way that was too located in time. This anachronism is at least saved by the fact that nobody talks like this outside of teen soap operas and bad Joss Whedon imitators.
I’m reminded of another recent novel I’ve read, Seraphina, which likewise feels quite anachronistically millennial at times – but there at least I had a sense that the purpose was to help me relate more directly with the characters and their lived world. I didn’t quite buy it, but I was willing to take it on loan. Here, without the character development and in particular without the setting, it felt like the author just didn’t know any other way. The biggest problem with this, however, is that it’s not consistent. If it were a thoroughgoing “I’m going to write about 21st century young people in fantasyland!”, I could go with that (hell, I really liked Angel’s Pylea arc…) – but it’s not. Instead, the things people say (and to a lesser extent the narration) are either contemporary colloquial speech or a bad attempt at high fantasy fauxdiaeval, and it’s pretty much random which one it’s going to be. The presence of each style just makes the other one seem more grating…
Another difference is the setting – primarily in that there isn’t one. There’s none of this business that older fantasies used to have about a sense of wonder, suggestive scope and grandeur, the odd and the intriguing. It’s all pretty straightforward, and nothing exists outside a bubble surrounding the characters that are currently on the page. One potentially interesting feature is the shift from the mainstream mana-manipulation approach to magic toward a spirit-being-manipulation approach, which is potentially interesting, though hardly novel. What strikes me most about how this is used, however, is that it supports a fan-fiction-ish obsession with domestication fantasies (by which I mean the conceit of a seemingly ordinary person who gains power ‘by proxy’ because they are loved (or otherwise chosen) by a being that is powerful and very dangerous to everyone else, but not a threat (or not currently a threat) to them, singling them (ideally a young woman or teenage girl, but boys sometimes get to play as well) out as Special without requiring them to be Abnormal, and Dangerous without being Malicious – examples include vampire boyfriends in paranormal romance, and flying ponies dragons in Pern) – at some point or other every significant character in this book is in (and seemingly exists to wallow in) a domestication fantasy of some kind. [And as with most peccadillos or preoccupations that an author may have, I’m fine with them sharing, but when it comes to dominate the text to this degree I tend to roll my eyes]
This domestication thing, however, is more important here because of the way that it plays into the biggest weakness of the book: the perfection and perfect safety of the cast. The characters begin as, if you’ll excuse the geeky analogy, Level 10 adventurers, and they’re in a basic ‘for levels 1-3’ campaign. Any one of them could rip through the entire kingdom they’re in without breaking a sweat (actually, one of them does take on and defeat an army, while armed only with a six-foot wooden post (yes, a six-foot wooden post, which he swings about gleefully – is this because the author just doesn’t have a clue how heavy wood is, or is it because she doesn’t know or care how strong even a professional swordsman could be? Possibly both!)). This makes it difficult to convincingly threaten them (and not to worry, if you’re not sure who the villain is he’s the guy who literally cackles maniacally as soon as we meet him).
Except that the author then has – or fears we will have – a panic attack when the characters actually DO seem to be threatened, because the characters are far too precious to let them actually ever be in any danger. Therefore, when the limitless and vague abilities of the characters are finally, semi-arbitrarily said to have found their ill-defined limit… don’t worry, they’ll just reveal and/or develop some new, even more badass abilities to make sure they don’t stub their toe or anything. There are also at least two textbook dei ex machinae. Frankly, it’s not only tension-sapping, it also left me feeling rather cheated. That may have been because I at least half wanted the protagonists to lose, so it felt like dangling false hope and then snatching it away…
… I think a huge part of the appeal of the book must be that we’re meant to be as in love with the protagonists, and in particular with Eli Monpress, as the author is… so then naturally we’d be overjoyed at his unimpeded preening and strutting and general being-infinitely-better-than-everybody-else-because-I-say-so. But I was already tired of that guy back when he was Silk in Eddings’ books of the 1980s, and any interest in seeing a magical Silk was more than adequately met by Danilo Thann in the Forgotten Realms books of the 1990s [Danilo, and even Silk, were also much more complex than Eli so far, but to be fair I’m only one book in and those guys had more time to make an impression]. Fan fiction will always struggle to appeal to those who are not fans of the fan-author’s favourite character…
Honestly, I’m probably making it sound worse than it is, perhaps because it happens to hit a bunch of my triggers for irritation. It is, as I say, light and easy reading and it does have satisfying moments of badassery. It’s just… that’s all there is.
So if you’re someone who watches Once Upon A Time In the West and thinks ‘yeah, but it’s not as good as the cartoon version, that had way more gunfights, and one of the gunfights was in space and the hero shot the bad guy’s bullet out of the air and it exploded and that was like way cool!’, or who likes to write fanfics in which your original character rampages through an established, familiar fantasy world kicking everyone’s ass, seducing all the girls (and/or boys) and generally making all the pre-existing characters constantly exclaim how wonderful your character is, you’ll probably love this novel.
Personally, I liked it much more than I ought to have done. And will probably read the sequel. But I expect I’ll be rolling my eyes a lot when I do…
Adrenaline: 2/5. There are many action scenes. On the other hand, there is never the slightest suspense about what will happen in any of the action scenes, or indeed about anything.
Emotion: 1/5. The extent of my engagement was that I instinctively found the heroine appealing (she’s an intelligent, proactive woman in a man’s world, so she’s basically catnip). Disliking everybody else (OK, I liked Nico, obviously, again, catnip), always knowing what would happen next and never having anything bad happen meant I couldn’t really care too much. Or at all.
Thought: 1/5. You’ll enjoy this more if you bore out portions of your brain with a drill before you start. Not only does it not encourage you to think deeply about anything, but thanks to the ricketiness and complete lack of attention to detail, even thinking about the superficial things may be counterproductive. A book it’s best to read with your eyes closed…
Beauty: 2/5. The prose, while pedestrian, is not inelegant. There are a few nice turns of phrase, and some attractive imagery (as you’d hope, given how much it’s oriented at the big images).
Craft: 2/5. Well, taking it as what it is, and not as what it isn’t meant to be, it’s fairly workmanlike. Most of the big problems the book has are ones that were put there on purpose, or at least intentionally not worried about. Comparing it again to Beyond the Moons, my recent old-school read, it’s clear that Aaron is much more in control of her writing here than Cook was in that earlier novel. If you surrounded this with a few hundred Dungeons and Dragons novels, I honestly don’t think it would be among the worst books on the shelf, in terms of craftsmanship. On the other hand, there are plenty of ways it could be improved without changing its basic character.
Endearingness: 3/5. This is where Aaron took a big swing at it. I think the idea is that you’re meant to be so in love with Monpress that you don’t care about any other qualities of the book. I, however, was mostly annoyed. On the other hand, it’s attractively light and simple and fast-paced and I’ll probably read the sequel, so I guess it balances out overall.
Originality: 1/5. If you try to imagine originality, what you’re not imagining is this novel. In all the years I’ve been reviewing, this may be the most purely, interchangeably unoriginal novel I’ve read. It’s not perfectly unoriginal, chiefly in its slightly different magic system (itself not original, but at least not the least original system possible), but if it had less originality to it then people would wonder whether it had just been copy-pasted.
OVERALL: 2/7. JUST PLAIN BAD.
Err…. sorry! I wasn’t expecting that to happen, honestly. Apparently this is the worst book I’ve read since I began reviewing, six or seven years ago. [I know for a fact however that it isn’t the worst book I’ve tried reading, as you will eventually find out…] Which I didn’t think it was when I was reading it… but when I look at the scores I gave other things, I can see why it’s turned out that way. It’s because the step above ‘just plain bad’ is what I call ‘bad but with redeeming features’… and this doesn’t have any, that I can see.
Which seems like a horrible thing to say, but… I just don’t see what this book particularly has to offer, what it’s particularly good at. There are ways it’s not awful, ways I mildly enjoyed reading it – mostly that it reads easily and the heroine is vaguely appealing. But even if I were more generous with some of these marks, there wouldn’t be any actual virtues to it. Comparing it again to something like Beyond the Moons – The Spirit Thief is certainly better-written than that, and I probably enjoyed reading it more. But which am I more likely to re-read, I wonder? Because Beyond the Moons was bad, but at least it was bad in an interesting way. This is not that bad, but just… bland.
And I’m writing three paragraphs here because to be honest it feels wrong to score it so lowly, and I think maybe this is just the sort of book that gets hard-done-by by the way I review things. But then again I think: well is it? I’m trying to imagine I hadn’t heard so much praise of these books. And then I think: well look, right there, I gave it 3 for Endearingness. That basically means: I kind of liked it, not that much but kinda. It was kinda pleasant to read. And that’s true. The problem is – the reason it’s getting a low score overall – is that my reviews aren’t just based on how much I like something, they’re about how good I think something is. Which is partly about deeper and more fulfilling sorts of pleasure than mere unobjectionable likeableness – lots of advertising jingles are perfectly likeable little tunes, but they aren’t the things that move your soul – and partly about how it might appeal to people in general, not just me. And let’s face it, however I might react to what is essentially the Saturday morning cartoon version of ‘80s/’90s fantasy, chances are anyone who isn’t deeply predisposed to like that sort of thing is going to find this deeply grating. Maybe the analogy here is very bad lesbian porn. There are a lot of people (I hear, I have been told) who, shown some very bad lesbian porn, would find themselves well-disposed to it, would find watching it perfectly pleasant. They may criticise the dialogue and find the acting unconvincing, and they may on some level yearn for something more fulfilling, more psychologically complex, more honest and authentic, or just something a little more damn imaginative… but hey, lesbian sex, hot. Cool. So I hear. Pretty. Lot of worse things in the world you could be watching. But then there are also a lot of people – in particular many gay men – for whom the same bad lesbian porn would have all the same flaws, but essentially none of the lowest-denominator virtues. It would seem… pointless. Useless. Actively puzzling that anyone would waste their time making or watching this crap. And maybe that’s what The Spirit Thief is, if you exchange ‘lesbian sex’ with ‘epic fantasy’. If you like this sort of thing, it’s… well, it’s what it says on the tin. It’s a fix, I guess. If you don’t like this sort of thing, this will offer nothing at all to change your mind.
So maybe my rating was right all along, on a global scale.
Still, I’m probably going to watch read the sequel.